Hearts, Minds, and Presumptions: What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?Posted by admin on 3/22/11 • Categorized as Spring 2011
One month after graduating from Beloit in 1976, Paul Fishstein landed in Kabul, Afghanistan, as a Peace Corps volunteer. Since then, he has spent 14 years either living or working in Afghanistan and Pakistan or studying humanitarian and development issues related to Afghanistan. He is a fellow at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, where he researches aid and stabilization efforts and post-2001 economic policy in Afghanistan. This article is based on a presentation he gave at Beloit College last October.
FRAUDULENT ELECTIONS, WOMEN still stifled by burkas, U.S. flags burning in the street. What happened to the “good war”? Weren’t we going to bring democracy to Afghanistan and liberate its women?
Returning to Kabul in 2002, I was struck by the Afghans’ palpable sense of optimism about the bright future that lay ahead. Back in the United States, there was a sense of righteous rage at Sept. 11, channeled positively into freeing a people and rebuilding a country which had, like us, been a victim of violence.
Since then, the view of the conflict in Afghanistan both here and there has shifted drastically. Here, in 2002, only 6 percent of the population thought it a mistake to have sent troops to Afghanistan; by July 2009, 36 percent thought that to be the case. There, as the promises of security and prosperity remain unfulfilled and violence continues to escalate, bright optimism has turned to dark anxiety.
Afghans’ expectations were high in the wake of the rout of the Taliban in late 2001, but even by early 2003, the lack of significant and visible progress had begun to grate on them. Afghan citizens saw armies of foreign soldiers and aid workers with fat salaries and new Land Cruisers, but little for the majority of the people. Civilian casualties, cultural violations, and other heavy-handed impositions have undermined consent and created enemies. The inability of the world’s most powerful military to defeat what was seen as a rag-tag group of defeated rebels has inspired the increasingly common view among Afghans that the United States and NATO are there for ulterior motives, and even the notion that they are supporting the Taliban to justify a continued presence in Afghanistan. Increasingly, Afghans want to know what happened to the $25 billion already spent on development assistance.
Why has this gone so wrong?
First, no amount of money can substitute for a political strategy, and from the start, there has been no obvious political strategy. In September 2001, Afghanistan was in the midst of civil war, and a sound political strategy would have tried to reconcile the factions’ conflicting demands. Yet, the Bonn conference, held in November 2001 to set the political framework and benchmarks for the subsequent five years, specifically excluded any Taliban elements.
Even before Bonn, when we cut deals with warlords and commanders to topple the Taliban, we have had often-conflicting objectives. We funded the centerpiece Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration program to take weapons away from commanders and illegal militias, yet enlisted the support of commanders and militias when they were seen as useful for counter-insurgency or our own personal security. While reform of the Ministry of Interior would probably have done more than anything else to improve the performance and legitimacy of the Afghan government, it stalled due to reluctance to offend political allies. Not surprisingly, many have used their protected status for personal gain and to neutralize or torment their rivals, which has, in turn, undermined support for the government and the international community. As more than one international official has lamented, “We’re doing the Taliban’s work for them.”
We also mistakenly treated Afghanistan as a blank slate, because the Taliban and 23 years of war had destroyed everything, and because the country was never anything more than a loose collection of often-warring tribes and ethnic groups which had never been governed. Or so the clichés went. In fact, by as early as 1928, Afghanistan had many of the institutions we would see in a modern state, including coeducational schools, separation of mosque and state, official monogamy, and government supervision of religious institutions. Of course, the development of Afghanistan faltered with the 1978 Communist-led coup and 1979 Soviet invasion, followed by the 1979-92 U.S.-backed struggle against the Soviets and subsequent civil war.
The assumption of a blank slate had practical consequences when it drove the type of development and technical assistance we provided, much of which reflected the tools, capacities, and interests of donor-funded organizations rather than Afghanistan’s needs. A 2003 study of public administration by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit found that government offices still had significant capacity after years of upheaval, but in many cases it was easier (and more profitable for contractors) to buy into the myth of the blank slate than to try to understand what was there and build on it. This lack of contextual understanding resulted in “one size fits all” or “cut and paste” institutions and policies, such as an electoral system that accentuated conflict rather than reduced it, elements of civil code which were in violation of both tradition and Islamic law, and a free-market economic policy that was little understood and less liked by many Afghans.
The structure of many of our assistance programs almost seemed designed to reinforce our lack of knowledge of Afghan realities: a shortage of officials with Afghanistan experience; security restrictions imposed on diplomats and aid contractors that ruled out contact with Afghans and therefore any sense of what is happening “outside the wire”; and short-duration postings of even the most senior international staff, which forced them to spend most of their time learning the basics of Afghanistan while at the same time having to show results.
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